How Labour Governs. Vere Gordon Childe 1923

Chapter II. The Theory and Practice of Caucus Control

AS we have seen the events of 1891-94 in N.S.W. had established finally the principle of the supremacy of Caucus as representing the Labour Party as a whole over the individual member. Henceforth the Labour Member of Parliament spoke and voted on all vital questions, not so much as the representative of a constituency, but as a representative of the Labour Movement. But he still had one alternative to submission to the rule of the majority in Caucus – he might resign his seat. Here was a loophole by which a discontented minority might defy the dictates of Caucus. This was demonstrated in N.S.W. in 1899. The Party was as a whole supporting the Reid Ministry, but six members, headed by W. A. Holman were uncompromisingly antagonistic to the Premier. Reid held office by grace of the Labour votes alone, but so evenly were parties divided in the House that the absence of the six Labour members would have meant the defeat of the Government. The Leader of the Opposition, Lyne, raised an issue on which the six said that they would resign their seats rather than support the Government. As, therefore, the Ministry were doomed to defeat anyway, Caucus decided that it would be wiser to support Lyne and take the responsibility for the defeat of Reid in return for concessions from the other side than to allow the resignations of the six to put Lyne in power irrespective of the attitude of the Labour Party, and therefore allowed themselves to be swung round behind Lyne. Thus, by threat of resignation, a minority of the Party had been able to override the decision of Caucus and impose their will on the majority of their colleagues. In this case the issue was unessential and the danger of this loophole in Caucus discipline was ignored.

In 1911, however, a crisis was precipitated by the resignation of two Labour members, and the life of the first Labour Government in N.S.W. was imperilled. An important plank in the Labour platform was “Immediate Cessation of Crown Land Sales” – as a step to the ultimate goal, land nationalisation. Instead of freehold the Party proposed to give “perpetual leasehold” titles. But this principle was distinctly unpalatable to the small farmers upon whose votes the Party relied in the country electorates. The representatives of country constituencies were accordingly very timid about referring to the leasehold plank. But the Labour Minister for Lands, Neil Neilson, had strong views upon the subject, and the newly-formed Ministry had to face more than one vote of censure for its adherence to the leasehold policy.

One item in the Lands Minister's programme aroused especially acute hostility. That was his interpretation of the plank as it affected what was called the Conversion Act of 1908. By this Act the Wade Ministry had conferred upon those who had taken up leases of Crown land the right of converting their holdings into freeholds. These settlers had deliberately taken up leases, and the Labour Party had vigorously denounced the measure conferring this unexpected privilege upon them as robbery of the people's heritage. Neilson, when he was appointed Minister, announced his intention of repealing this legislation which plainly conflicted with the Party's platform. He further indicated that he interpreted repeal to mean the denial to those who already had taken up leases, but had not as yet applied to have them converted, of the right in future to convert into freehold. This pronouncement created dismay among the farmers who contended that, having taken up lands at a time when they would have had the right to convert their titles into freehold, the withdrawal of this right would be repudiation of an implied contract. Most of the representatives of country constituencies were terrified into concurring in this view. They contended that repeal of the Conversion Act should mean only the refusal to allow those who took up land after the amending Bill were passed, the right to convert; those who already held leases should not be prejudiced. This view had been accepted by Holman, the deputy leader of the Party, before the elections and announced by him. Accordingly there were many intrigues in Caucus to defeat the more rigorous interpretation of Neilson and prevent him giving effect to his policy.

The crisis was reached while the Premier, McGowen, was in England attending the Coronation. On July 22nd, 1911, Wade, the Leader of the Opposition, moved the following motion of censure:

“That the declared policy of the Government that, in the proposed repeal of the Conversion Act, they will not preserve in their entirety the rights of those persons who are now entitled to convert their holdings, thereby repudiating a statutory compact, is inimical to the best interests of the State.”

This test was too much for the loyalty of two members of the Ministerial party. Messrs. Horne and Dunn, knowing well that they could never face their constituents had they voted for Neilson's policy, resigned without consulting either their leader or Caucus.

As the Government had only a majority of two at the best of times, this precipitate action at once destroyed its power in the House and brought about the defeat of the Labour Government. The Party managed to keep in office, but only by repudiating Neilson's policy, ejecting from office the Minister who was too scrupulous in his interpretation of the platform, and re-selecting one of the recalcitrants to contest the vacancy; for the stricter policy was an utterly hopeless one as the main issue of an election. Thus a minority was able to dictate to Caucus before it had even had an opportunity of discussing the details of the proposed Bill, and forcing upon the Labour Party a policy which appeared disingenuous. To prevent a recurrence of such a crisis the next Conference of the P.L.L. decided on the motion of Stuart-Robertson, M.L.A.:

“That any member resigning without the consent of Caucus and the Executive shall be ineligible for selection for five years.”

To ensure the reality of Caucus supremacy, a further safeguard was needed – the election of the Ministry by that body; the leader was already elected each Parliament by Caucus at its first meeting. At the 1906 Conference in N.S.W. a motion in favour of this procedure was moved. “Hitherto,” said the mover, “men who have got seats in Cabinets have been merely friends of their leader. A man would abstain from criticising his leader's actions in expectation of favours to come.” Thus the rule of Caucus might degenerate into a thinly-veiled dictatorship by one man working through the forms of majority rule. Many of the older parliamentarians, such as Holman and Catts, bitterly opposed the motion. They contended that the leader, who is responsible to Caucus and Conference for the successful passage of Labour's legislative programme and the execution of its administrative policy, was the best judge of the fittest lieutenants to assist him in his task and that, therefore, it was in the best interests of the Movement that he should be allowed to choose men he could rely upon. The motion was at this time rejected, but the election of the Ministry by Caucus has since become the recognised rule of the Labour Parties. In 1908 Fisher, in forming his first Ministry in the Federal Parliament, left the selection of Ministers to Caucus, reserving to himself the allocation of portfolios among those selected. This practice has since been invariably followed.

The test of the adequacy of the Caucus checks comes when Labour has at length climbed into office. It has been found so far only partially effective. Elevation to Cabinet rank at once gives a new status and a new outlook to the Labour Minister, sharply sundering him from his former associates on the floor of the House. McNamara, M.L.C., a Victorian delegate, told the 1919 Federal Conference of the A.L.P. that Ministers receiving high salaries had become a class apart. “They came into Caucus as a solid body, even when they had differences of opinion upon subjects amongst themselves, and presented their proposals in such a way that it did not always make for the best in administration and subsequently in legislation.”

The Minister faced with the actual responsibilities of governing, administering the details of his department, surrounded by outwardly obsequious Civil servants, courted by men of wealth and influence, an honoured guest at public functions, riding in his own State motor car, is prone to undergo a mental transformation. He inevitably looks at administrative questions from a different angle to that in which they appear to the private member. The latter wants a lot of things – mostly apparently small and simple – done for himself, his constituents, his friends, or his union; the Minister seems to possess the power to grant most of such requests. But the Minister is painfully aware of the limitations placed upon his power by considerations of finance, by constitutional usage, by the traditional procedure of his department, and by the very multiplicity of conflicting claims upon his favour. He is more fully seised of the implications of each question than a private member can be. He must beware of creating precedents rashly, confidential information in his possession cannot be revealed, lest it should slip out if too many persons are privy to it. The members of the Cabinet become bound together by sharing such difficulties, by the mutual recognition of the more intimate and secret problems of Government and a common desire to maintain their positions in the House and the Party, and to ensure both their return by the country and their re-election by Caucus. For that reason they tend to preserve a solid front to Caucus. They resent its criticism both because they can see ways of retaining the Party in office and dangers to themselves and the State, which it would be unsafe or useless to explain to their followers, and because the latter's criticism is often inspired by personal jealousy and ventilated by possible rivals. They can generally secure the support of a majority at any meeting by judicious concessions to the demands preferred by individual members on behalf of their constituencies, and thus buy over a sufficient number of waverers to secure their supremacy.

And then the decisions of Caucus can very often be ignored. It is hard to imagine that a majority of members would be prepared to vote against the Government on the floor of the House and thus jeopardise the Labour Ministry if Ministers took the bit in their teeth. In any Parliament composed of professional politicians the anti-dissolution party is always in a majority, and this is especially so in the case of a Labour Party where the members are not only professional politicians, but are practically kept off the labour market by the possession of seats. Hence the threat of a dissolution is always a powerful weapon in the hands of the Ministry.

The only real check which Caucus can exercise in the last resort over defiant Ministers is to refuse to re-elect them if the Party is again returned to power in the next Parliament. It is noteworthy, however, that it is extremely rare, save in cases where the Minister has resigned owing to a definite split with the majority of Caucus, his colleagues, like Neilson in 1911, or Adamson in Queensland at conscription time, for a Minister to fail to secure re-election. In 1914 it is true that Caucus refused to re-elect Edden, the former Minister for Mines, but he had displayed a quite unusual degree of culpable incompetence. In two successive Federal Ministries no Ministers were eliminated by Caucus, and the same has happened in three consecutive Labour Governments in Queensland, although in the Caucus election of 1920 J. Fihelly failed to secure re-election as Deputy-Leader. Such remarkable consistency in the choice of old favourites is sufficient commentary on the efficacy of this cheek in the hands of Caucus.

The deliberations of Caucus are supposed to be secret, and it is therefore difficult to gauge accurately how far Ministers are prepared to defy it. Nevertheless, a sufficient number of instances are common knowledge to enable one to confirm the opinion advanced above on a priori grounds.

For example, the McGowen Government in 1912 introduced a Bill into the Assembly granting a piece of land at Newcastle to the B.H.P. Company (Broken Hill Proprietary Company, Ltd.) for the establishment of steel works. This seemed a contravention of the plank of the fighting platform promising State iron and steel works. It was afterwards admitted that this measure had been tabled before it had ever been submitted to Caucus. Several members of the Party, therefore, voted against the Bill in the Assembly, but it had the support of the Opposition and passed easily. In the second Parliament of the Holman Government, Caucus set up a Bills Committee, to which all legislation had to be submitted before it was introduced in the House. The Premier seems to have acknowledged its right to examine Government measures.

A very critical question for the Party arose during this Parliament – the right of Caucus to be consulted in respect to the appointment of Legislative Councillors. Conference in 1911 had recommended a certain procedure in regard to these nominations, but the Cabinet ignored this. After the nominee Upper Chamber had mutilated a large number of Labour Bills, the Government at last in 1912 recommended ten gentlemen for appointment to the Council. Of these ten only four had signed the pledge approved by Conference. Some of the others were really members of the Party, but others again were not, and two consistently voted against the Government. In making these appointments Cabinet had acted entirely on its own initiative, and they came in for very scathing criticism from Caucus and Conference.

Accordingly, in the next Parliament, Caucus carried a resolution on the motion of R. D. Meagher, that no further appointments to the Council should be made unless the names of the proposed appointees had been approved by Caucus. Holman, the Premier, was absent from the meeting which made this decision, but when he heard of it, he announced his intention of defying it in a Press statement. “As long as that resolution remains on the records of the Party,” said the Premier, “there will be no appointments to the Upper House.” He contended that such appointments were purely Executive matters, and that Caucus could not interfere with Executive functions. As if to enforce the latter dictum, he shortly afterwards assigned the portfolio of Public Health to G. Black, who had been elected to the Ministry on the distinct understanding that he should be only an honorary Minister.

Had Holman's dictum stood it would have meant a very serious limitation of the supervisory power of Caucus, since administration is, from the Labour standpoint, often quite as important as legislation. Nor is the distinction between executive and legislative acts logical. A Government is called upon to give an account in the House of its administration, and therefore the Party must take responsibility for acts which they may have to defend in the Assembly. However, the Holman position was finally rejected by the Party at the 1916 Conference. In Queensland, the only other State that has a nominee Second Chamber, the Ryan-Theodore Governments have always left the choice of Councillors to Caucus, while the names have also been submitted to the Executive for endorsement as in the case of Labour candidates for the Lower House.

It must not be thought, however, that the Labour Governments in Queensland have been much more submissive to Caucus domination. In 1919 J. M. Hunter was holding no less than three portfolios in a temporary capacity although Caucus had more than once laid it down that this gentleman was to be only an honorary Minister. It is also understood that Caucus passed a resolution forbidding further expenditure on the purchase of State cattle stations. A little later the purchase of a still larger estate for this purpose was announced.

Yet, although unable to control the actions of Ministers, the Labour Member is discouraged from criticising them in public. In November, 1915, Gardiner (M.L.A. for Newcastle in the N.S.W. Parliament), made a scathing attack on the Government's handling of the Labour situation during the war in his speech on the Budget. Premier Holman rushed into the Chamber in a towering rage, and said in the course of his reply: “If the hon. Member makes another speech like the one he made to-day in this House, I will have him expelled from the Party, or I will leave it myself. He has already been warned privately, and now I tell him so publicly.” Similarly Frank Anstey, sickened by the Government's inactivity and pre-occupation in militarism, and finding his criticisms in Caucus falling upon deaf ears, resigned from the Federal Labour Party in order to be in a position to ventilate publicly his indignation.1

The limitations of Caucus control have become so notorious that some curious proposals were put before the Federal Conference of igig for revolutionary modifications in the system of Cabinet Government. One motion proposed to associate with the Minister in the administration of each department a committee of five members elected by Caucus. The mover wanted the work of administration to be carried out by practically the whole Party, and not to be the work of ten or twelve men. Another delegate thought a committee would help to fix responsibility, and go a long way towards purifying public life. Premiers, actual like Theodore, or expectant like Tudor and Storey, agreed in branding the proposition as unworkable. If responsibility was divided it could not be fixed. As it was, Cabinet had to account to the Party for any errors. The motion was lost by 11 votes to 17.

In conclusion, we may remark that the Caucus system seems to discourage brilliance and originality. The exceptional man is always suspect. When a man of marked ability does succeed in gaining the lead, like Holman or Theodore, he tends to become autocratic. A man of outstanding ability and dominating personality naturally resents dictation from those less gifted and well informed than himself – men who are not in so good a position as he is to judge of the complexities of a political situation, and whom he is apt to despise as intellectual inferiors. The democratic discipline of the Labour Party has in several instances turned such men into apostates. That was the fate of Holman, Kidston and Hughes. Such men may honestly believe that they are indispensable to the Party and that they, and they alone, know what is best for it and the masses it represents; and therefore persist in a policy, in the teeth of popular opposition, to the breaking point, where a lesser man would seek by servile compliance with the caprices of his followers to maintain himself in his position at the cost of his principles. The truly great Labour leader who can steer a middle course between both these extremes is rare. T.J. Ryan was the most splendid example. In general Caucus likes an able man as leader, but in filling other posts inclines to pay more attention to personal qualities of good fellowship than to fitness for Ministerial responsibility. A versatile and original thinker like Anstey is too dangerous to receive preferment from Caucus. Safe moderate men are generally preferred.